The mood in Bethlehem this weekend offered a stark contrast to the wailing and gnashing of teeth going on in Washington since UNESCO recognized the birthplace of Christ as a world heritage site. Hundreds of Palestinians gathered Saturday at the Church of the Nativity to hear their leaders take credit for a rare victory and promise more to come.
As it refuses to negotiate with the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu and a unity deal with Hamas remains stalled, the celebration offered a glimpse at the closest thing the PLO has to an actual strategy. While it is unlikely to placate a populace that has begun to increasingly question the raison d’etre of Palestinian Authority, the UNESCO strategy has not yet been met with much domestic opposition except by those who view it as a waste of time.
For people like the Western-supported prime minister in Ramallah, Salam Fayyad, however, the plan makes plenty of sense. Even if the PA can’t pay its employees or prevent Israel from arresting its people in nightly raids, securing international recognition of Palestine’s heritage is hardly controversial. It also boosts his narrative that the West Bank and Gaza are on the cusp of liberation and must therefore start preparing. On Saturday, Fayyad praised the first UNESCO vote as his leadership’s single-greatest accomplishment:
It’s wonderful to have this celebration. It’s a major event. It’s a landmark event, indeed, I believe, on the path to freedom and statehood. This is the most significant event to have happened since the inception of the Palestinian Authority.
Tragically, he could be right. Israeli and American officials seem to agree, judging by the reactions to the vote adding the church and a pilgrimage route to a list of heritage sites in danger. The US was “profoundly disappointed” with the outcome, while Israel cited it as evidence of a Palestinian anti-peace agenda. Both accuse the Palestinians of politicizing culture but, as Emily Hauser points out, that happens a lot around here.
While it’s safe to assume average Americans and Israelis aren’t as upset as their leaders are letting on, their failed lobbying throughout June betrayed real concerns about the implications of the decision. For the State of Palestine, as UNESCO recognizes it, the application for the church was a trial run. Starting next January with the ancient village of Battir, which is under threat by the route of Israel’s wall, officials say they have a long-term plan to register at least 20 new heritage sites, one by one, throughout the West Bank and Gaza.
Several of what they consider endangered sites are in areas of Jerusalem recognized by UNESCO as part of Palestine. One, the Route of the Patriarch, is at the proposed site of Israel’s first new Jerusalem “neighborhood” since 2007. The design for Givat Hamatos calls for 2,600 settlement units on a main Jerusalem-Bethlehem artery.
Two more outside the Old City, the Mount of Olives and Silwan, are highly valued by the Israeli state. Antiquities authorities have conducted digs in Silwan and set up an archeological park called the City of David, while the Israeli interior ministry has plans to build a military college on the Mount of Olives.
Among others on this growing list provided by a foreign ministry official: the Roman-era Aqueducts of Jerusalem; the West Bank archeological site Qumran, famous for the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls; and the Old City of Hebron, home to the Ibrahimi Mosque and holy for Muslims as well as Jews.
(The Hebron site, speaking of politicizing culture, is already registered as a “national heritage site.” Netanyahu added it along with another holy place in Bethlehem in 2010 to Israel’s list in a bid to appease the far-right Shas party, which was one of his allies at the time.)
Getting more of these sites on UNESCO’s rosters would not change a thing on the ground, but it’s easy to see why officials are pursuing them. The strategy offers the Palestinian Authority a rare chance to show its impatient populace that it is doing something, even if the gains are marginal. It also backs Israel into a corner by linking its actions directly to issues of international concern, particularly amongst religious groups taking an interest in the occupation. And each vote would force the US to choose between Israeli and American policy toward Palestinian territory. In 2011, Washington vetoed a UN resolution condemning settlements even though it was written to match US positions.
For these reasons we can expect a big fight in the coming months at UNESCO, and Palestine could have the upper hand. Even though PLO diplomats have a history of buckling under pressure at the UN, they are less likely to back down now. The Ramallah of 2012 is not the same place it was a year ago, and the Palestinian Authority can no longer afford to surrender to foreign dictates without facing consequences at home. The mere discussion recently of welcoming Israel’s vice premier into Ramallah sparked three days of protests, at which demonstrators defied violence from their own police to break one of their biggest taboos by chanting against the Oslo Accords outside President Mahmoud Abbas’ residence.
Without real gains, the UNESCO strategy offers little more than a sideshow, and time could be running out for the Palestinian Authority.